Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is a cop who gets dragged into a silent, lawless war with Mexican drug lords, in which all rules of law and national boundaries seem to disappear. She tries but fails to keep control and maintain her own principles.
Sicario is a tense, violent movie. Not so many bullets are flying in Sicario, but when they do, they are shocking and meaningful. I’ve been trying to pinpoint why this is. The movie goes through a couple of cycles in which tension is rising and rising, and then a shootout is like a culmination or release of that tension. There is violence in Sicario, but it is shown as realistically life-threatening and horrendous.
There is also another reason why the tension of violence is so present in Sicario and that is because the film is grounded in some kind of gritty, stark realism. If you would compare this movie with a spy movie of James Bond or Mission Impossible, for example, then in those movies a lot of bullets fly and people get hurt and cry and tragedy occurs, but still those movies seem to exhibit some kind of fantasy world in which violence is part of the rules of a spy fantasy, and is removed from daily life and experience.
Sicario instead is a thriller that is much more grounded in real experience. The desert-borderland between the US and Mexico feels like a real desolate place and is beautifully and perfectly photographed into this movie. The land is a character on its own. So is the city Juarez and so are the military compounds in Arizona. The film embeds itself into the land and the elements, and makes violence feel like an aberration and a tragic part of that land at the same time.
This is the unmistakable mark of the director Denis Villeneuve, who created the same feeling in Prisoners (2013). There too, the suburban environment in autumn in Pennsylvania feels uncomfortably like a real place, and violence and tragedy occurs among real people. In both films, credit for this amazing cinematography has to go to Roger Deakins, the master of photography. Deakins is a celebrated cinematographer and he has explored the American south-west before in No Country For Old Men (2007) of which echoes are felt in Sicario too.
Visions of dry landscapes, desert colors, and thunderstorms in the distance all add to the character of the film. There is a beautiful shot of the CIA soldiers marching off towards a confrontation in the setting sun, and all we see is the broad colorful sky and the black silhouettes of soldiers who descend into the dark void at the bottom of the screen. Night is truly dark, very real, and feels technically impressive.
There is another reason why tension is held high. The main character Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is constantly trying to get a grip on the situation, but she is out of her depth and events are outside her control. We as audience are right there with her. She drowns in a lawless world that swirls around her, and the original rules of justice are abandoned. Another reviewer compared this movie to Apocalypse Now and I understand the sentiment. It is a descend into a country of wolves with its own rules, in which even the borders between countries become meaningless.
Sicario is not set up to be some kind of pre-fabricated masterpiece but as a competent movie that means to make you feel a certain way. It is the feeling of getting lost in a violent world in which the rules elude you, and the movie succeeds well. Everything about Sicario simply works very well. Not just the visuals and the screenplay work to this end, but Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro really nail their roles.
Sicario is difficult-to-make movie with a difficult topic, and a complex emotion that it tries to convey, and the simple reason that it works is a testament to the skill and confidence of Villeneuve and his team. It is one of the most competently made movies of the year so far and I respect it tremendously for that.